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Rising Contamination at Santa Monica Beaches Despite Drought
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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 30, 2016 -- Despite a drought so severe it is drying up the urban overflow into California’s ocean waters, Santa Monica beaches still face rising contamination, with government monitors logging 107 incidents of high bacteria levels last year, setting a five-year record.

An analysis by The Lookout of a new database compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows 370 incidents of contamination near the shores of Santa Monica’s popular beaches between 2011 and 2015.

Since 2011, the EPA data shows, there were 1,419 days of elevated flows of such contaminates as E-coli bacteria, fecal matter and Enterococci, which is found in high concentrations in human feces.

The current drought -- one of the driest and hottest on record in California -- is usually regarded as having started in 2011.

Beach advisories are tied to the discovery of “elevated” levels of contaminates, which are determined by state health standards. They do not require beach closure, but the public is warned to stay out of the water for 72 hours.

An analyst for Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental watchdog group, said the upward trend in contamination is not as surprising, or counterintuitive, as it might seem.

California’s long dry spell has helped prevent sewage from overflowing into storm drains to an extent, said James Alamillo, who is in charge of Heal the Bay’s annual report card on beach pollution and watches the government’s monitoring data closely.

But it only takes three-quarters of an inch of rainfall in Santa Monica “for things to start falling apart,” he said. “It’s still too much to handle.”

And with growing crowds of tourists at local beaches, pollutants from gutters, streets, yards and parking lots still make their way into the ocean, he said -- despite the drought.

The impact is particularly noticeable in the waters around the Santa Monica Pier, the site of record-breaking crowds this summer.

“It still comes from the tourists, the homeless have a population there. Birds are still there, although to a less extent than previously,” he said. “All of that is driving the trend.”

The water around the Santa Monica Pier earned F grades on Heal the Bay's 2015-16 Report Card, issued in May, which landed it on the group's "Beach Bummer" list for the third year in a row ("Santa Monica Pier Makes "Beach Bummer" List Again," May 27, 2016).

Water quality off the Pier ranked fifth-worst in the state, both in dry and wet weather. Its low ranking is due to persistent bacteria from "moisture and lack of sunlight" and the presence of bird droppings, officials said in the report.

Elevated levels of the bacteria monitored are linked to Gastroenteritis (usually thought of as a “stomach flu) and symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ache, nausea, headache, and fever.

The elderly, children and those with compromised immune systems are considered particularly at risk for developing serious medical conditions, sometimes even proving fatal.

Storm-drain runoff is still Southern California’s largest source of pollution in coastal waters, containing fecal bacteria (from humans and animals alike), trash, and hazardous chemical toxins harmful to both people and animals.

“The storm drain system is separate from the sewage system,” Heal the Bay notes on its website. “What flows down the street ends up at the beach.”

Overall, California’s 88 public beaches have made vast improvements in water quality in recent decades compared to their troubled pasts. Heal the Bay awarded grades of A or B to 95 percent of them in its 26th annual report card, issued in May.

In Southern California, the beaches did even better, with 97 percent of them getting top grades.

Better policies, infrastructure improvements and social awareness of the problem have “done a tremendous job of improving” water quality, Alamillo said.

The City of Santa Monica has been especially diligent, he said.

For instance, the City began operating the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility (SMURRF) in 2000, the first of its kind in the U.S. The facility captures up to 500,000 gallons of runoff daily (or about 4 percent of Santa Monica’s daily water use), removes pollutants such as oil, grease and pathogens and recycles for local uses.

SMURRF tackles the city’s largest flows -- the Pico-Kenter and Pier storm drains. Combined, the two storm drains are responsible for 90 percent of Santa Monica’s dry weather runoff.

But the EPA data shows how difficult it is overcome the problem of hazardously contaminated beach water.

In 2011, Santa Monica beach monitors reported 54 episodes of risk due to elevated bacterial levels. Most advisories last one to a few days, although one that year stretched 24 days, from October 24 to November 17, the data indicated.

All of the episodes amounted to 161 days of elevated contamination in 2011. The next year, the data shows 51 such situations involving 159 days and including two 15-day stints. In 2013 and 2014, 79 reports were logged each year involving 225 and 303 days, respectively.

Last year’s jump to 107 episodes marked a 98 percent increase over 2011. In 2015, 282 days were recorded, the data indicated.

In the pre-drought years of 2000 to 2010, the EPA data shows 449 incidents but 5,352 days involved. One advisory of contamination lasted all of 2010, which Alamillo said could have stemmed from tougher anti-pollution mandates for ocean waters at that time which weren’t immediately met.

Also in the pre-drought mix is a 2009 episode that prompted advisories stretching 226 days, from June to November.

The data is from the EPA’s Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification program (called BEACON2.0), which contains all state-reported beach monitoring and notification data from Great Lakes states and coastal states.

Under the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000, the EPA helps fund monitoring so local authorities can notify the public when water quality is potentially hazardous. It includes more than 6,000 beaches in states, territories and tribal communities in the U.S.


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